The first tackle that Zach Lederer absorbed on the practice field this year was so violent that it left the rest of the Centennial High School football squad wondering about his health.
But it was a hit the 17-year-old senior said he needed to take, to prove to himself that his recovery was complete from a brain tumor that could have killed him.
"My teammates said, 'Man that was a hard hit,'" Zach recalled. "And I said, 'If that was a hard hit, I'll be fine.' It was a great thing because it got all of my fears out of the way."
Despite concerns from his parents and one of the best doctors in the world, Zach decided he wanted to become a full-fledged member of the Eagles during his senior year after serving as the team's manager. Wearing a specially designed helmet fitted with 18 shock absorbers, he suited up for every game this season, and even got to play three as a member of the special teams unit. In the process, he defied expectations and became an inspiration to those around him.
Doctors discovered Zach's tumor when he was 11, and they told his parents that he would not survive it. Said his father, John Lederer, "We were left wondering exactly how much time we had left with him."
But Zach prevailed, after scores of surgeries and procedures — including the insertion of a shunt that went from his neck to his abdomen to decrease swelling and a medically induced coma to prevent brain damage.
About six years after the ordeal, with the shunt still imbedded in his body, Zach asked his parents whether he could play football for the first time. They strongly objected but ultimately gave him the nod after Zach received medical clearance.
About a month after Centennial's season ended, he still relishes that he made it back from a tumor that once robbed him of the ability to walk, speak or feed himself.
"It's very rewarding to know that I went through everything I went through, not only in the hospital, but everything I went through with the football team," said Zach, who was recently featured on a CNN segment with its senior medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta. "I thought this was the best, the fact that I'm able to be out with my team participating and fighting with them."
About all of Lederer's hits — he not only took a few but gave them while playing defense — came during practice. Because he was playing on special teams, there was scant contact during games.
Centennial senior defensive lineman Zach McHugh said the players wondered whether Zach Lederer would get hurt, but said those fears were alleviated when they saw the customized helmet.
That also helped address concerns of his parents, who still recount the horrors of their son's initial symptoms — severe headaches when he lay down, constant vomiting when he stood — the doctor's prognosis and ultimately the anguish of allowing doctors to induce a coma.
"That is a decision that a parent never wants to have to make. There were no guarantees that he would ever wake up again, " said John Lederer, 48.
He added that early on, after the diagnosis of a brain tumor, "we were told that there was no hope and that all they could do for Zach at that time was install a shunt in his brain to alleviate the pain."
Lederer said they then consulted renowned physician Dr. Ben Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, who "gave us hope."
"He had a very large ugly tumor pretty much in the center of his skull," Carson said about Zach. "He had been given a terminal prognosis. It didn't look good, that's for sure, but we decided to get him shunted, and I thought that we could at least reduce the mass and give ourselves a better chance of being able to control it with radiation or chemotherapy.
"We had to do a couple of operations just to control the swelling, or that would have killed him itself," Carson added. "But he managed to get through it all, and we were able to radiate it. And it virtually disappeared."
After the surgery
Zach's mother, Christine Lederer, 45, said, "After Zach came out of his coma, he could do absolutely nothing but blink. Zach had physical therapists, occupational therapists and cognitive therapists. He had some trouble with memory, and he had to learn to write" again.
Christine Lederer, an accountant, and her husband, vice president of his family's Frosty Refrigeration Co., made certain that one of them was at Zach's side at all times. Carson said that the parents' support, as well as Zach's positive outlook, had much to do with his recovery.
Said Carson, "So now we have a kid who's gone from, 'Oh well, we're sorry,' to playing football."
Zach, who has a younger sister, had played basketball, soccer and baseball before the injury, but he gravitated toward football once he entered Centennial and became a manager. Leading up to this senior year, Centennial coach Ken Senisi lightheartedly suggested having Zach suit up for a few plays during his senior season.
But Zach instead considered playing full time. Despite his parents' reservations, he persisted and eventually convinced them in part because of Carson's stance.
Carson said that when Zach expressed his desires to play football, "I told him it's probably not the world's best idea, and I certainly don't recommend it for anybody, whether they had a shunt or tumor or not. But at the same time, if it's something that's so important to you that your life is going to be miserable without it, by all means do it, but make sure you wear all the protective equipment and be careful."
"Once Zach was cleared by his doctors to play, we still had concerns but to a lesser degree," said John Lederer. "We then felt that with all of the work Zach had done as the team manager the previous year, that Zach had earned the right to pursue his dream of playing high school football."
Seeing action on the field
Senisi said he made certain that Zach was physically capable of playing football at the high school level in practice before he agreed to allow him to play in a game.
"That was something I watched from the corner of my eyes, watching him go through drills, and making sure: Was he safe enough, and did he have the right technique so that he wasn't going to get hurt out there?" said Senisi. "And it was definitely evident as the season went, watching him come up and make plays. He wasn't the strongest or fastest kid, but he would come up, scout and make plays and I was like, 'Wow, this is really great to see.' He wasn't a charity case."
Senisi said that no coach commented to him about Zach's playing in a game, but "I had a referee come in one game, who asked, 'Do you want me to talk to the opposing coach about him getting some plays?' " Senisi said. "And I said, 'No, he's fully equipped. He's ready to go and play.'"
Still, when Senisi called Zach's name to enter late in Centennial's fifth game, against Marriotts Ridge, Zach didn't budge, figuring Senisi meant teammate McHugh. "Then somebody nudged me toward Coach and he said, 'You're going to be in the next kickoff,' " said Zach. "I got excited as I could be."
He saw little action, however, as Marriotts Ridge booted the ball out of play. Zach went in as a defensive back late in the next game, against Mount Hebron, only to see the team run out the clock.
But in Centennial's final game, against Long Reach, Zach started on kickoff. He went on to take part in about five kickoffs during the game and says he didn't make a tackle but did make contact with opposing players.
Zach said he now has aspirations of becoming a coach some day. He added that years from now, when he has a family of his own and they ask him about his ordeal, he'll tell them, "I lived my dream. And I think it's a good story because that's exactly what I want to teach them. To live their dream. No regrets."